French Idiomatic Expressions with 'Mal'

Are you seasick or homesick? The French word 'mal' has idioms for both.

Anxious mixed race woman sitting at table
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The French word mal means "badly" or "wrong" and is used in many idiomatic expressions. Learn how to say headache, seasickness, work hard, and more with idiomatic expressions using mal

Mal is often confused with mauvais because they both have negative meanings and can be adjectives, adverbs, or nouns. Here are a few pointers.

Mal is usually an adverb meaning poorlybadlyimproperly, etc. It can also be used in front of a past participle in order to give that verb a negative meaning. 

Mauvais, in the rare instances where it is used as an adverb, means bad.

Mauvais is usually an adjective that modifies a noun and means badmeanwrong, and the like. Mal, when used as an adjective, means bad, ill-at-ease, immoral, and the like, and can only be used as an adjective with copular (state-of-being) verbs such as être (to be) and se sentir (to feel).

Don't mix up mal and mauvais with bon and bien either. It's easy to do because the two pairs have similar meanings, but bon and bien are positive, while mal and mauvais are negative.

Common French Expressions with 'Mal'

Aux grands maux les grands remèdes.
Big problems require big solutions.

avoir du mal à faire quelque chose
to have a hard time doing something

avoir mal à la tête, aux dents
to have a headache, toothache

avoir un mal de tête, de dents
to have a headache, toothache

avoir le mal de mer
to be seasick

avoir le mal du pays
to be homesick

le bien et le mal
good and evil

bon gré mal gré
(whether you) like it or not

c'est mal vu
people don't like that

de mal en pis
from bad to worse

être bien mal
to be close to death

être mal avec quelqu'un
to be on bad terms with someone

faire mal à quelqu'un
to do harm to someone

Honi soit qui mal y pense
Shame on anyone who thinks evil of it. / This person has hidden evil intentions.

mal du siècle

ne voir aucun mal à quelque chose
to see no harm in something

non sans mal
not without difficulty

on n'a rien sans mal
you can't get something for nothing

pas mal
not bad

pas mal (de)
quite a lot (of)

prendre la chose mal
to take it badly

rendre le bien pour le mal
to return good for evil

se faire mal / Je me suis fait mal au pied.

to hurt oneself / I hurt my foot.

se donner du mal
to work hard

se donne un mal de chien à faire
to bend over backwards to do

s'y prendre mal
to do a bad job; to handle something badly